Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
Greensboro, North Carolina, is that true American anomaly – a place where there seem to be more people writing serious books than reading them. Pick your flavor – literary fiction, poetry, history, biography, memoir, true crime, sci fi and fantasy, young adult, chick lit, historical fiction, literary and music criticism – and you’ll find serious practitioners toiling quietly, often unaware of each other, in this sleepy city with a population of 225,000, five colleges, just a handful of surviving independent bookstores, and no formal literary scene to speak of. As with so many things in the South, you need to understand a bit of history before you can begin to understand how this curious state of affairs came to be.
Greensboro’s literary DNA winds back to the Civil War, when William Sydney Porter was born here in the summer of 1862. After doing three years in a federal penitentiary for embezzlement, Porter relocated to New York City and began churning out short stories under the pen name O. Henry. Though he is still read today for his clever plots and twist endings, the man suffered no illusions that he was producing high art. Writing, he once said, “is my way of getting money to pay room rent, to buy food and clothes and pilsener. I write for no other reason or purpose.” Admirably clear-eyed, but he should have gone a bit easier on the pilsener. He died of cirrhosis at the age of 47. Today his name graces a prestigious short story prize and the plushest hotel in his hometown.
Jump forward to the 1930s, when the esteemed poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, a member of the literary Fugitives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, came to Greensboro to teach a summer session at what was then called the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. A number of Ransom’s colleagues and star pupils from Vanderbilt eventually made their way to Greensboro to teach, write and hang out, among them Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren. Only Jarrell stuck for the long haul, joining the Woman’s College English faculty in 1947 and staying on it, off and on, until he was fatally struck by a car near Chapel Hill in 1965. To this day, no one knows for sure if his death was an accident or a suicide.
Shortly after arriving in town, Jarrell dubbed the Woman’s College campus “Sleeping Beauty” and gushed to his friend Lowell about the place’s cardinal virtue: “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” Unlike more famous literary meccas, such as New York City, Provincetown, Iowa City, Key West, Oxford, Miss., and even the nearby “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, unassuming Greensboro may be the best of all possible worlds for a writer – an under-the-radar place where one can work in peace, but can also find camaraderie and support from others engaged in what will always be a grindingly lonely pursuit. The gifted southern journalist and biographer Marshall Frady once explained to his editor at Harper’s magazine, fellow southerner Willie Morris, why he preferred living quietly in the South to basking in the dazzle of New York City:
I’ve never been too sure that it is benign for a writer to spend any great length of time in the company of New York’s estate of appraisers from afar and traffickers in reactions and responses. Because maybe you start after awhile writing from those secondary vibrations, instead of from the primary pulses and shocks you can’t afford to lose. Perhaps writers ought to be scattered out over the land… more or less lost in the life of the country, not special aesthetic creatures apart from most men but only another suburbanite, another townsman, another farmer, who just have this secret eccentricity of an obsession to write…
Frady’s words resonated with me when I first read them 30 years ago and they still resonate with me today. The reason, no doubt, is that when I wrote my two published novels I happened to be working as just another newspaperman in Greensboro, and the place left me alone wonderfully to do my “real” writing when I wasn’t working my day job. It was, as Jarrell had learned half a century before me, a dream set-up for a writer.
The year Jarrell died, as it happened, the creative writing program began offering a Master of Fine Arts degree at newly renamed UNC-Greensboro, now a co-ed school. The small faculty was headed by the poet Robert Watson, the short story master Peter Taylor, and Fred Chappell, prolific writer of poetry, fiction and criticism who would become the state’s poet laureate and a renowned nurturer of young talent. Chappell, now 75, is retired from teaching but he’s still writing and still living on a shady street a few blocks from campus.
“The MFA program has exploded,” he told me recently. “A lot of the writers don’t leave town after they graduate, they stick around. There’s always somebody to drink with even though there’s never been a satisfactory literary bar in this town.” Echoing Jarrell’s discovery, and mine, he added, “People leave you alone if you want them to.”
One writer who stuck around is Drew Perry, who graduated from the MFA program in 1999, still lives near campus, and recently published This Is Just Exactly Like You, which has been short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction. I asked Perry why he didn’t go off to New York after getting his degree. “Because I was incredibly poor and I didn’t have anything to show publishers,” he said, adding that the short stories he wrote to get his MFA were “not ready for prime time.”
So he stayed in Greensboro, working on stories and a novel, doing home repair jobs, eventually landing a gig teaching creative writing at nearby Elon University in Burlington. Eventually he started placing stories in literary journals, and in the fall of 2008 an agent signed him up. Six weeks later Viking bought his novel at auction. Perry is now married to Tita Ramirez, a fellow student at UNCG, and they have a 3-month old son, Tomas.
“I still have that community of support,” says Perry, who grew up in Atlanta and earned a degree in advertising from the University of Georgia, where he took his first creative writing courses as an undergraduate. “My neighbors in Greensboro are the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. It felt like the MFA program continued after I graduated. What I learned (at UNCG) is that there’s a difference between wanting to be a writer and writing. I love Greensboro and, yes, it’s too sleepy. There’s nothing specific to recommend it. But it’s just big enough and it’s just small enough.”
Candace Flynt, a Greensboro native and early graduate of the MFA program, still lives in town, writing fiction and memoirs. And then there’s a whole flock of writers who have nothing to do with the MFA program. Parke Puterbaugh, who is now enjoying a major success with his book Phish: The Biography, about the popular jam band, said, “If you’re sufficiently motivated and self-directed, Greensboro’s a nice mid-sized city with decent bars, restaurants and culture – but not an overwhelming mix of things to swamp your concentration.” Bill Trotter is the wildly prolific and versatile author of histories, biographies, novels, reviews, essays and, for good measure, columns about computer games. His philosophy: “Adopt a blue-collar attitude and write for whatever and whoever will pay you for your time, sweat and expertise.” Mark Mathabane was teaching at N.C. A&T State University when his memoir about growing up in South Africa, Kaffir Boy, became an international best-seller. Jerry Bledsoe was working as the local newspaper columnist when he wrote a true-crime book called Bitter Blood that became a #1 New York Times best-seller. The late Burke Davis lived here while writing many of his more than 50 published works of history, fiction and biography. Robert Watson still lives here, as do the accomplished writers Marianne Gingher, Lee Zacharias, Michael Gaspeny and too many others to name.
Orson Scott Card, two-time winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and best known for Ender’s Game, is perhaps Greensboro’s one brand-name author. He’s also a prolific contributor to a local free weekly newspaper called The Rhino Times, in which he writes copious, cranky musings on everything from current politics to cookies, squirrels, movies and global warming.
Today Greensboro itself is something of a Sleeping Beauty, less a true city than a well groomed but slightly overgrown town. It is a thoroughly middling place, blessed with mild winters, governed by aggressively moderate leaders, populated by citizens whose civic pride and self-satisfaction can sometimes shade toward smugness. The town is located squarely in the center of the state’s rolling Piedmont, midway between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic beaches, a place so at-home in its own skin that it never developed the big-league pretensions of Raleigh to the east or Charlotte to the west. It’s content with its new minor-league ballpark and downtown public library, its respectable symphony orchestra, its one renowned art museum.
Most of the state’s bold-face writers live or teach in the Triangle, including Reynolds Price, the novelist Lee Smith and her essayist husband Hal Crowther, Jill McCorkle, Kaye Gibbons and many others. It was there, in the writer’s mecca of Hillsborough, that the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette dared to publish a novel in 2002 that lampooned his neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus. The ensuing literary cat fight – there were charges of everything from elitism to homophobia, the two unpardonable sins of our age – merited several buckets of ink from the Raleigh News & Observer. Such hot-house foolishness would be unthinkable in lukewarm, mannerly Greensboro.
Or maybe Greensboro’s exposures to the limelight have left its residents – writers and non-writers alike – relieved that the town is so rarely in the news. It was in downtown Greensboro that four black students from N.C. A&T State University had the audacity to sit at the whites-only F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in February of 1960, a gesture that enraged many whites, inspired many blacks, and helped ignite the civil rights movement. And it was in Greensboro in November of 1979 that five communist organizers were shot dead by Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis at a “Death to the Klan” rally, leaving the city deeply traumatized. These two visitations of klieg-light glare were, respectively, noble and brutal; they were also utterly out of character in this city that has always prided itself on its willingness to compromise, to accommodate, and to get along. Greensboro, after all, is the site of one of the South’s first universities built for African-Americans during Reconstruction, and it was one of the first Southern cities to willingly and peaceably integrate its public schools after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954. Greensboro, as Marshall Frady wrote about South Carolina in a slightly different context, “seemed merely to lack the vitality for any serious viciousness. It was as if its defense were a colossal torpor.”
Torpor is a funny thing. While most people find it stifling, many writers find it alluring, even necessary. The cliche of the writer toiling in his remote shack, much like the reality of Philip Roth toiling in his remote New England retreat, are two equally valid illustrations of the writing life’s solitary nature. And Greensboro’s genial brand of torpor goes a long way toward explaining the place’s allure to writers – both to the young ones who keep coming here to launch their careers, and to the established ones who work here, quietly, often apart, usually alone. There’s a sense here that if your writing is not always avidly read by your neighbors, at least its making is regarded with genuine respect by them. Al Brilliant, owner of one of the town’s few surviving independent bookstores, expressed this perfectly: “People treat writers as workers here.” Not as special aesthetic creatures, not as eccentrics or pariahs or freaks, but as people who work hard to make worthwhile things. That’s an intangible but vital thing for any writer to feel, and I’ve lived in dozens of places in America where it was utterly absent, and sorely missed.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that in a country of flowering creative writing programs, UNCG’s is consistently ranked among the top 25 by Poets & Writers magazine. While this is not the place to debate the merits of such programs – are they incubating genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? – there is no doubt that the UNCG program’s rich history and its continuing reputation for quality are a spring that keeps replenishing the city’s literary life.
“One thing that’s really strong with our program is the sense of community,” says Jim Clark, who came to Greensboro in the 1960s to organize textile workers and now runs the MFA program and edits its respected twice-yearly literary journal, The Greensboro Review. “We bring in people like Robert Pinsky and John Irving and Joshua Ferris, and the town people come to these events. We do writing workshops for all ages, from at-risk kids to the elderly. We do benefit readings to raise money for the Food Bank and for homeless people. We’ve tried to organize a community of writers that extends beyond the campus.” He waved at the nearby neighborhood known as College Hill. “There’s people out there who sit on their porches and talk about books, and drink together, and peck away in their rooms.”
To most people, that probably sounds like a working definition of colossal torpor. To a writer, it sounds like heaven.
(Image: Carolina Theater (1927), 310 South Greene Street, Greensboro, North Carolina, image from sminor’s photostream)
A Friday morning in mid-July: opening day at the Saratoga Race Course. We’re in the final throes of a heat wave that’s been smothering the entire Eastern Seaboard for days on end, and this morning the thermometer reads 97 — with the humidity, it tops 100 in the shade. I’ve worked days like this before, and it’s daunting, thinking of the eleven sticky races that will stretch on into early evening. I head across town, following the long dip of East Avenue down and then up again, and as I pass the Oklahoma training track, the festooned iron gates of the main race course blossoming out before me, I worry absently about the temperature and the safety of the horses.
If the crowd inching towards the admissions gates looks diminished, perhaps it’s because they’re drooping beneath the punishing sun. A good number of them will give up by the sixth race or so, throwing out a rash of perfunctory bets for the rest of the card. “I’m melting out here,” half a dozen men tell me, soaking through their tank tops, beads of sweat colonizing their upper lips. “You guys got air-conditioning in there?” I manage to bark out a laugh every time. “Don’t worry, honey, you still look good,” one woman assures me — without provocation — and I am surprisingly relieved. We’re all melting, outside and inside the Paddock, the converted barn in which two long rows of pari-mutuel clerks sit taking bets and counting cash. Sweat collects in the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision as I punch out $2 exacta boxes.
The heat eventually breaks after dark, when a series of violent thunderstorms sweep in and knock the weather into submission. Half the town loses power. Finally, maybe a little inexplicably, it really feels like summer to me; I throw open the windows and listen to the thunder retreating, the gentlest rumble now beneath the steady pulse of the rain.
I’d returned to Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, four days prior. My hometown had seemed largely unchanged as I drove in (as if I were coming home from the war or something — in fact I was here at Christmas), though the sidewalks are now littered with enormous disembodied feet encased in ballet slippers, each one individually painted and nearly as tall as man. It’s some sort of project to showcase local artists, but the freestanding feet are perhaps creepier than anyone probably intended, like the collected crime scenes of a giant serial killer.
I’m happier with the track’s anniversary logo, a red oval with a golden horse blazing through it, which has been plastered all over town — affixed to front doors and printed on flags and at the track itself, on banners and t-shirts and tote bags. The Saratoga Race Course opened in August of 1863, though it hasn’t quite been 150 consecutive seasons since — it was shuttered a few times, like when gambling was outlawed in New York state in 1911, and during the Second World War. Still, it’s billed as the oldest continually running thoroughbred track in the country. The track is a constant in this town, the six-week season an anchor around which the year rises and falls.
Saratoga is humming in anticipation, the population visibly swelling as crowds collect and loiter along Broadway. It’s hard for me to avoid sentimentality when it comes to the racing season, but I can almost feel a sort of romantic momentum picking up as the town sails towards August — the ornate Victorian mansions, thrown open for six weeks of garden parties, or the bars, heaving with tourists flush with winnings from the big race, waving cigars and spilling beer in the streets. We all cast our glances backwards a bit when the races begin, and before long the real world ebbs away, at least for a few weeks. I’ve always found it a little funny, though, that for all the nostalgia and the celebration of tradition, at the track you have to take it one race at a time. Thirty seconds, a minute at most — if you’re lucky, a tight, dramatic finish, and if you’re luckier still, a winning ticket — and then it’s on to the next race, just twenty-eight more minutes to post.
I join the crowd trudging through the stultifying heat on opening day and it all seems to be the same as it ever was: the admissions gates give way to a long, broad footpath and a sea of red-and-white-striped awnings, and there’s the Dixieland band, wailing away, and there are the hat sellers, the boys hawking the Daily Racing Form, the stands charging obscene prices for lemonade — it feels like nothing so much as the distillation of summer, everything lazy and affable beneath the unrelenting sunshine. The park stretches out on both sides, swaths of patchy green covered with picnic tables and banks of televisions displaying the morning odds, and the back of the grandstand looms ahead, white lattice and flowers and ushers standing guard at the entrances.
A ribbon of gravel flanked by a pair of white fences cuts a sharp channel through the park: the route along which horses are led from the stables to the paddock. Security guards pull chain-link barriers across a gap in the fences as the horses pass, and they are an astonishing sight up close, sleek and muscular and so much larger than I ever expect they’ll be, tongues lolling out, nosing slightly to one side or the other as they are led with what appear to be the lightest of touches at their reins. Today they pant a bit in the heat. I won’t see another live horse for the rest of the day.
Eventually I reach the grandstand, and as I walk inside I am greeted by a blinding expanse of white: maybe a few hundred people milling around, greeting each other after eleven months away like it’s the first day of school, clad in white-collared shirts and toting lunch boxes and already a bit weary, as if the first race has gone off and some angry drunk is shouting that their mistakes have cost him a huge trifecta. These are my people: these are the pari-mutuel clerks.
We take bets. It’s the simplest explanation for a job that’s more nuanced than I’d ever have guessed, before any of this, before the track was something more than a disruptive abstraction on the east side of town. I learned the basic logic of horse gambling ten years ago, hovering over a keyboard as seasoned tellers called out sample bets, struggling to understand the terminology and the different combinations, exactas and doubles, keys and partial wheels, ten-ten on the eight horse, Seabiscuit in the fifth. I’ve learned a lot in the intervening decade, like how to harness the patience to explain the fundamentals to a novice, or how to decipher the ramblings of a drunk. I work hard to be effortlessly adept when professional gamblers come to the windows, printed stacks of racing stats clipped together, the carefully-calculated permutations of a morning spent handicapping printed at the top in neat pencil. Each series of bets, each exchange is a single moment encapsulated: beneath the numbers, horses and dollar amounts, it’s flirtation or anger or joking banter or the drudgery of playing a game only the very lucky can seem to crack.
I am assigned a window in the Paddock, a self-contained bay of sixty betting machines populated by cheerful crowds on both sides of the windows. The customers are a mixed group, but on the weekends, it’s a lot of picnickers, juggling their programs and Miller Lite tallboys, cigarettes dangling from their lips. I draw the first bills of the day, close to $1,000, and as I count my money and the reunions continue around me, I feel unexpectedly out-of-place. It’s been three years since I worked a regular season at Saratoga, and I have lost both my seniority and my points of reference. I’m not eager to talk about how it’s been just a few days since I left behind my entire life in New York City. In the slow minutes before the first race, I am eager for the steady flow of customers, for the grounding effects of a long, impatient line of gamblers.
Eventually a nondescript man saunters up and leans in against my window. “I’ll take a dollar tri box: 1, 6, 8,” he says distractedly, laying a pair of bills across the top of my machine. I punch the ticket and as he plucks it out I wish him luck. It’s extraordinary how quickly everything slots back into place; taking bets is mostly habit by now. By the time the horses are called to the post, I’ve travelled back across the past decade, suddenly deep in a long stretch of late summer spent sitting behind the betting windows, fingers working in a sort of rapid, monotonous variation, rote transactions punctuated by the most genuine human interaction, when then entire world narrows to a fine point, just me and my customer, exchanging cash and one-liners and the smallest slivers of each others’ lives. Another man comes to my window, and then another, and then another.
Once the heat breaks, the threat of rain hangs over the rest of opening weekend. It’s around the seventh or eighth race on Saturday and the strip of sky I can see is growing murky. A customer is lingering at my window, checking over his tickets, and I ask him if he thinks it’s about to rain. He leans in, eyebrows raised. “Why?” he asks. “You got a tip for the mud?”
It does rain soon, a few quick, furious downpours, sending the crowds sprinting for cover. A woman wanders past my window in polka-dotted cowboy-boot galoshes. They’re just flash storms; the track isn’t sloppy yet. A supervisor once described a steadily rainy afternoon as a “telephone-number day,” when track conditions made things so unpredictable that the only way to pick a winning combination of horses was to toss out random numbers, an address or a birthday. “Little old ladies will be cashing ’em in like crazy,” he said. I know the type — women who come up and tell me, slightly abashed, that they’re here to “play my numbers.” We’re not quite there yet: the professionals are still hard at it, betting slightly too much in the heady rush of opening weekend. “Will you be my lucky girl?” a few guys ask, and I assure them that I am an especially lucky teller, but this weekend, the lie feels more barefaced than usual. I sell a lot of tickets, but I cash next to nothing. I collect tips in dimes and quarters rather than bills, relegated to weary offers to keep the change. Men are down hundreds, thousands already, and it’s only day two.
A large, ruddy-faced man with a Boston accent cashes a big ticket — a few dollars bet, more than a few hundred won back — and as he’s about to pocket the stack of money, he pauses. I do my best to avoid looking too eager. Then he holds up a hand and indicates I should cup my palm, and when I do, he drops forty cents into it. “There you go,” he says. “For your scholarship fund.”
I like the little dramas of the racetrack, the smallest fortunes, rising and falling from one race to the next. I like the completely bizarre cross-section of people, the brusque and the flippant, or the guys that lean in and tell me their life stories. They wear shirts unbuttoned too far and masses of gold chains resting on curling chest hair, or white linen suits with matching pocket squares and straw boaters, or the blandest suburban dad uniforms, khaki cargo shorts and neatly-tucked-in polos. When the rain begins, the lines dry up, and in the slow stretches, I watch people walk by — groups of women in dagger-like platform heels, hunched in on themselves for balance; groups of women strutting past in flip flops beneath super-short dresses; a woman wearing a tiny top-hat fascinator, feather jutting from the band, maybe something swiped from an enormous bird of prey. A man hollers across the pavement, “I gotta use the can!” He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt open over a red t-shirt that reads THING 1. There is no sign of THING 2.
The Monday after opening weekend, the weather has settled into something spectacular, mid-seventies and sunny, fluffy white clouds and a light breeze; the track is fast and the turf is firm. Early this morning, an essay I wrote about leaving New York was published, and it is hard to think about all of that as I key out dollar pick-3 part-wheels, but I do think about Joan Didion a little bit — my essay is partly a meditation on her famous leaving-New York essay, “Goodbye to All That.” There is a line in there that gave me pause, something about New York, like the rest of it, but a phrase that followed me up through the Hudson Valley to Saratoga Springs: “…the trees just coming into full leaf, the lament air, all the sweet promises of money and summer.” Didion is on 57th Street; I am at the betting windows, but the phrase turns perfectly here.
It’s only money, some of my customers say. But it’s only money, for a lot of them. Across the park, through the grandstand, past the bleachers and out on the dirt, the horses are being led to the starting gate. I walk up and down the long row of tellers, catching dozens of single moments encapsulated, people handing over cash, people calling out combinations, people laughing, shaking hands, fist-bumps for luck. It smells like sunscreen, and the cloying heaviness of cigar smoke. I return to my window and flip open my money box, and a customer appears out of nowhere, bets scrawled across the top of his program. “Are you ready for me, sweetheart?” he asks. I look down at the screen, the simple architecture of a bet laid out and waiting — dollar amount, type, horse, and the tiniest stroke of luck — and then back up at him and nod. “Go ahead.” He squares his shoulders and begins to rattle off numbers; I begin to take his bet.
Next: On Luck
Images courtesy the author
This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, Village Voice and San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.No better does the difference between books and the book business make itself known than on the Sunday of the Frankfurt Book Fair. A severe degree of indifference descends on one Hall as rabid bookishness thrives in others. I had been warned, but the bustle of the first few days caused me to chalk up these claims to hyperbole. After endless meetings between publishers and sales people, agents, printers, packagers, fulfillment houses and foreign rights managers – and don’t forget the nights that can easily last all morning – the weekend (especially Sunday) was dead in the Frankfurt Messe’s Hall 8: the cavern of commerce that housed, primarily, English-language publishers.With the chance to visit one of the other Halls (there are 10, making the Javits Center in New York look like my one-bedroom apartment), you begin to grasp the breadth of what publishing looks like all over the world, so long as you are willing to contend with the throngs of book fans, only a small portion of whom bother to trawl the Hall 8 aisles, where by noon on Sunday the crackling of packing tape replaced the cacophonous chatter of deal making so constant during the early going.It is an overwhelming experience, no matter the size of the company or nature of its books or services. Everyone is there to do business (as opposed to show off books). My visits to other halls were limited in light of how much time I spent at the Messe from Tuesday evening’s set-up to Sunday evening’s teardown. I never saw the agents’ pavilion, or the TV and Film Hall. The other international Halls hosted publishing industry outfits from across the globe, all of which were situated in loose regional confederacies.The hometown German publishing Hall was packed all the time, as was Hall 4, where you found illustrated book publishers and incredibly high-end book arts publishers and artisans (including New York’s own Booklyn). I returned to Hall 4 the most (for my own meetings and for curiosity’s sake). If I could read German, I would covet all of Orange’s books; Index from Spain is great; the books from Lars Mueller were a revelation – Who Owns the Water being one of my better personal acquisitions of the week.But, as I said, and as The New York Times reported, Frankfurt at its core is about the business of books. According to the October 13 Frankfurt Book Fair Daily, in 2006 the world’s 45 largest publishers generated $73 billion in revenue! Yes, billion. McGraw-Hill Education came in 7th on the list, the most profitable American publisher with just over $2.5 billion in earnings. The next two spots also belong to American companies, Reader’s Digest and Scholastic respectively. Of those three companies’ business, very little of it has to do with fiction, or even trade books for that matter. The top earners are more mixed, highlighting, like the Fair itself, just how huge the global book industry is, and why wheeling and dealing foreign rights and film options are one of the event’s priorities.And so, after several days steeping in this environment, it only seems natural to ponder the state of the book business today. It is lucrative, but it is clear that if these larger companies intend to plump their cash cows they must make changes that will, eventually, affect the actual books.Two encounters stick with me as indicative of these shifts. The first happened during a wonderful little dinner party. Of the 10 or 12 of us in attendance, I was the most “indie” of the crew, meaning I have never been involved in a six-figure deal (or five-figure for that matter). These were agents and industry entrepreneurs, Americans and Europeans. Friendly and interesting, I was sorry that we adjourned to a noisy party where reasonable conversation went by the wayside.Prior to that, however, I learned about DailyLit.com from its co-founder Susan Danziger. The basic idea is this: books are emailed to you bit-by-bit. Available titles include public-domain classics, as well as contemporary works of fiction and nonfiction in a few different languages (illustrated books are also in the works). The contemporary books require paid subscriptions, and I was told that the program’s subscribers number in the hundreds of thousands. It seems to me that it is misleading to say this service is about reading books; it’s really more about reading the textual contents of books. It is, without a doubt, though, about publishing. A great deal of us, myself included, spend large amounts of time in front of screens. DailyLit.com aims to add some well-worded and intriguing distractions to help us better use our Time, that ever more elusive and flitting notion. The trend to reformat books into our digitally reliant ways was apparent at the Fair, from Google’s impressive stand to the number of e-book makers, sermonizing about convenience and lifestyle, efficiency and the future.As I manned the Mark Batty Publisher booth on Sunday morning, bored and tired, an Australian woman stopped to fondle a few of the books. As she flipped the pages issuing exclamations about the lovely photographs and design, she mentioned that she worked with e-books. I nodded and said that I would never read one. Having obviously heard such a sentiment before, the perky Aussie said defensively, “We’ll get you all one day, this is the future of reading.” Judging by the popularity of DailyLit.com (a relatively new endeavor) and the hordes of money being invested in converting such assertions into fact, there are many interests that want to see the future of reading as something that does not involve ink on paper. And in light of the way we live now, perhaps the public’s demand will in fact secure these new models.But this next anecdote contests the public’s willingness to start dismantling their bookshelves in order to make room for new flat-screen televisions on which they could as easily watch a movie or read a new novel. This encounter happened even farther away from the capacious Messe, at the bar in my hotel out by the airport. I met a German engineer in town for work, and on his way back home to Connecticut. He knew of the Fair, but his trip had to do with installing a machine in a factory. He was curious about the Fair for a very exact reason, however. He had a meeting coming up with a Silicon Valley company (he had already signed a non-disclosure agreement so he could not tell me which company) that, according to my new friend, planned to open close to 60 print-on-demand facilities in the United States within the next couple of years.Because this gentleman could not divulge fully the nature of the business in question, it is fair to assume that these facilities would not strictly be used for vanity publishing, but rather they will allow businesses to order an array of printed material with greater ease than traditional off-set printers, though he did ask me if I had seen many print-on-demand books. His background was in printing and he was dubious about the quality of the books such machines could offer, suggesting that vanity publishing was indeed an aspect of this Silicon Valley company’s business plan. No matter the products made in these 60 facilities, it is a return to ink on paper. We as a culture have not yet totally disregarded the paper page’s status as a valuable vessel for information.In the case of vanity publishing books, however, these would mostly be sold through non-traditional outlets, if they were sold at all. These products would be the blog equivalent of codex books, objects made because the authors want to see their words printed on bound pages. And like with blogs, some of these books could of course be quite good, while many of them would doubtlessly be middling, yet they would exist nonetheless. (Admittedly, the major difference between blogs and print-on-demand books is that the books usually still cost something.) Hang around with enough writers and you will inevitably hear frustrated rants about the difficulty of getting their completed works published. Take that small portion of the population and couple it with everyday folks who want to tell their stories or spout off about politics, and you have lots of potential books.Now, these books, for the most part, would not be shopped around in a setting like Frankfurt, but that is the point. Books and the book business are not the same and the rift becomes apparent during this international trade show, which is so all-consuming for its attendees that it bounces back at them time and again, even once the day’s meetings have ended and the parties begin. I knew this, of course, because even in the small and independent strata of publishing this reality rears its head more than I care to admit. It is a business that no matter the scale requires many participants, all of whom expect, and deserve, to be paid for their services.Perhaps at the heart of this is how the range of services that falls under the publishing umbrella is expanding, and how all of the interests strive, and struggle, to keep up. The Frankfurt Book Fair has a history that reaches back to the time of Gutenberg, and what this behemoth of an event proves is that it will most likely have a future that extends for another 500 years. What that future looks like remains to be seen, but the hints become more apparent, as this year’s innovations become next year’s standards, or running jokes.No matter what, however, the beautifully designed and well-printed book is not going anywhere, and that should be a comfort to anyone that has ever loved the experience of reading one.